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Energy & Environment

New Proposal Would Triple The Size Of A Protected Marine Area In The Gulf Of Mexico

The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is home to threatened and endangered species of manta rays, sea turtles and corals.

An abundance of sea life inhabits the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. A new proposal would triple the size of the protected area.

A federal agency is proposing to nearly triple the size of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, which protects critical coral reef ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico.

The proposed expansion by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would protect an additional 14 reefs, increasing the sanctuary's size from 56 square miles to 160 square miles.

Located about 100 miles off the coast of Texas and Louisiana, the sanctuary is an important marine habitat for a range of species, including threatened or endangered manta rays, sea turtles and corals. It’s known for its colorful coral reef habitats that sit atop underwater salt domes.

"These are the biodiversity hotspots in the Gulf of Mexico," said Sanctuary Superintendent G.P. Schmahl. "This is where a lot of the action is happening, where spawning occurs for a lot of fish species, for example, where large species like manta rays, whale sharks and sea turtles tend to congregate. And so they’re very important biologically."

Areas that are part of the sanctuary are protected from certain oil and gas activities, ship anchoring and some harmful fishing techniques.

An initial, even larger expansion was proposed back in 2016, and would have expanded the sanctuary to 383 square miles. But Schmahl said it was revised to address concerns from the oil and gas and commercial fishing industries, which also use the area.

​"What we did was to look at the proposals that we put forward and tried to minimize the impact of restrictions on commercial uses in the area, while at the same time providing protection to these important areas," said Schmahl. "We feel that what we are proposing now represents a very good compromise, which takes into account all the various users and constituents groups that have interest in this area."

The proposal is open for public comment until July 3. There are also a series of virtual public meetings happening throughout the month of June. More information is available, here.